• U.S.

DEMOCRATS: Look Back in Anger

6 minute read

Humiliated by one of the worst presidential election defeats in U.S. history but somewhat consoled by its surprisingly strong showing in state and local elections, the Democratic Party remained in a state of confusion bordering on schizophrenia. Looking back in anger rather than ahead with hope, many of the party’s factional leaders did what seems to come so naturally to them: they quarreled.

George McGovern surveyed the wreckage of his presidential campaign from the poolside of the Virgin Islands retreat of one of his most generous financial backers, Henry Kimelman. The Senator’s attitude toward the labor leaders and other traditional Democrats who had refused to help him was bitter. He declared that men like AFL-CIO President George Meany were party “wreckers” and that he would do “whatever I can to make sure that they don’t come back into a dominant role in the Democratic Party.” He also said that he was “not sure how you accommodate within one party the kind of forces that would win the approval of John Connally [who headed a Democrats for Nixon movement] and the people that were supporting me, or whether they really belong in the same party.”

By McGovern’s reckoning, the biggest single factor in his loss was Richard Nixon’s ability to attract voters who otherwise would have favored Alabama Governor George Wallace. If Wallace had not been shot and had run as an Independent, McGovern contended, “we would have had a far different result…What we now have is a country presided over by a President who has married the Republican Party to the Wallace people.”

McGovern did concede that he had made some mistakes—all minor to hear him tell it. They included giving his acceptance speech at Miami Beach about 3 a.m. instead of in prime television time. He also said that he should have insisted upon taking another day to choose a vice-presidential candidate—and thus avoided what he called “the Eagleton thing.” The selection and dropping of Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate could be considered among his “mistakes of the heart,” McGovern argued.

One of McGovern’s top aides, Frank Mankiewicz, uttered the same alibis; he agreed that while the election “was tough before Eagleton, it certainly wasn’t winnable after the Eagleton affair.” Yet he had seen a glimmer of hope as the Republican-corruption issue “started to move pretty hard” about ten days before the election. “And then a day later, there was Henry [Kissinger] on the tube with peace, and the corruption thing died—bang.”

Eagleton seemedto have a more balanced evaluation in his own postmortem. He said that he thought he had contributed only “one rock in that landslide,” adding: “When you’ve got a spread of 23 points in the polls, translating into many millions of votes, I can’t describe the Eagleton situation as being the determinant.” He offered a solid reason for McGovern’s loss: “I think he was misinterpreted in many respects, but nevertheless the perception of him on issues was one that caused this term radical to stick. The candidate we field in 1976 will have to be perceived as a bit closer to the so-called political center.”

The election, in fact, seemed to bear out the view offered in 1970 in The Real Majority by its coauthors, Political Analyst Richard Scammon and ex-Lyndon Johnson Aide Ben Wattenberg. Their conviction: “The man who chooses the Presidents of this country is the man who bowls on Thursday nights. He is a man who was decidedly turned off as he watched the Democrats-of-despair hand out the campaign buttons of the New Politics. The electorate is unyoung, unpoor and unblack.”

Gracious. As recriminations persisted, Jean Westwood, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was under multiple pressures to resign her post, but insisted stubbornly that she would not do so. Demands that she quit came from five Democratic Governors, who apparently represented the majority opinion among the 31 statehouses now controlled by the Democrats. Many of the Governors have resented the recent dominance of the party by Democratic Senators, and feel that they have largely been pushed aside by the McGovern movement. Their spokesman, Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers, observed dryly that “it would be the gracious thing to do” if Westwood would resign, paraphrasing her own post-convention remark that it would be “the noble thing” for Eagleton to quit.

Some congressional Democrats, led by South Carolina Senator Ernest Hoilings, Maine’s Edmund Muskie and Massachusetts Democratic Representative Thomas O’Neill Jr., also urged Westwood to step down. McGovern came only halfheartedly to her defense, suggesting that dissidents ought to “let things simmer down” before seeking her removal.

No one was sure, however, who should replace Westwood. Leaderless and feuding, the party was also quarreling about what to do with the McGovern campaign’s various lists of contributors and voters identified by their political preferences. McGovern insisted that one such file of 600,000 names “belongs to me—it’s a personal list.” McGovern regional workers outside Washington feared that handing their lists over to regular local party organizations might mean that they would never be able to have access to the names again. “These files are the only remaining fruits of our labors,” explained Ronnie Brooks, McGovern’s Minnesota campaign coordinator.

The widespread ticket splitting seemed to confirm the fading influence of bloc voting and party loyalty. “Never before has partisanship meant so little,” noted California Pollster Mervin Field. “I just don’t see a coalescing back to the traditional loyalties.” Larry O’Brien, former Democratic National Chairman, saw a more ominous sign in the balloting. Citing the alarmingly low national voter turnout,* he observed: “Half the population is turned off on both parties and on the system itself.”

Perhaps so. The overriding fact remains that the Democrats, at least on the presidential level, failed to convince the majority of voters that the party at present stands for majority interests. As McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, put it in his postmortem: “People who used to be poor are not poor any longer. Their interests are not the same. So it isn’t enough to say Democrats, Democrats, lunch pail, lunch pail.” Only with this insight can the Democrats begin their road back to reality.

*Compared with 60.7% in 1968, 62.1% in 1964 and 63.2% in 1960.

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